Dame Nellie Melba

Today marks the 153rd birthday of Australia’s most famous opera singer, Dame Nellie Melba (19 May 1861 – 23 February 1931).  Melba was born Helen Porter Mitchell in Richmond, Melbourne, later changing her name in honour her native city. After studying singing in her home town she travelled to Paris in 1886. Her talent was recognised by the influential Mathilde Marchesi who became her teacher and ardent supporter.

Melba made her operatic debut in 1887 at the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels. This was to be the beginning of an auspicious international career.

Signed photograph of Nellie Melba as Ophelia in Hamlet, c.1889 Purchased, 1998 Performing Arts Collection
Signed photograph of Dame Nellie Melba as Ophelia in Hamlet, c.1889
Purchased, 1998
Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Collection

Melba performed in the great opera houses of the world – the Paris Opera, La Scala in Milan, the Metropolitan Opera House and Manhattan Opera House in New York, and most notably the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in London. She became Covent Garden’s prima donna, returning season after season. Throughout her career, Melba worked with prominent musicians and composers including, Enrico Caruso, Giacomo Puccini and Giuseppe Verdi.

Melba remained a loyal Australian and Melbourne was always her home. She returned to her beloved country for several triumphant concert tours and eventually collaborated with J.C. Williamson Theatres to form the Melba-Williamson Opera Company, bringing great opera to the people of Australia.

During World War I, Melba began teaching at Melbourne’s Albert Street Conservatorium (later the Melba Memorial Conservatorium), encouraging and promoting local talent. She also performed in many charity concerts to raise funds for the war effort. For this patriotic work, Melba was awarded a D.B.E. in 1918.

Arts Centre Melbourne’s Performing Arts Collection holds a significant collection of performance costumes and accessories worn by the singer, which were donated by her grand-daughter Lady Pamela Vestey in 1977. Melba’s most famous operas are represented, including Otello, Rigoletto, La Traviata, Faust, La Boheme, Romeo and Juliet and I Pagliacci. The most elaborate item is a gold cloak, hand-painted and sewn with jewels, which was worn by Melba in Lohengrin and designed for her by the Paris-based couturier, Jean-Phillipe Worth.

Cloak worn by Dame Nellie Melba as Elsa in Lohengrin, c. 1891.  Designed by Jean-Phillipe Worth. Gift of Pamela, Lady Vestey, 1977. Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Collection. Photograph by Jeremy Dillon.
Cloak worn by Dame Nellie Melba as Elsa in Lohengrin, c. 1891.
Designed by Jean-Phillipe Worth.
Gift of Pamela, Lady Vestey, 1977.
Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Collection.
Photograph by Jeremy Dillon.

Since the time of this generous donation, many additions have been made to the Performing Arts Collection. Original photographs, many of which are signed by Dame Nellie, illustrate her life and career. Programmes, some printed on silk, trace her Australian and international opera performances and concerts. Letters and cards written by Melba to friends and pupils provide an insight into the personality of this great performer. Opera scores (including Madame Butterfly signed by Puccini), books, monogrammed items, and records are also part of this important collection.

All That Glitters: Showcasing costumes from Arts Centre Melbourne’s Performing Arts Collection

Gown worn by Jill Perryman as Dolly Levi in Hello Dolly!, The Gordon Frost Organisation, 1995. Designed by Tim Goodchild. Gift of John Frost, 2001. Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Collection. Photograph by Jeremy Dillon.

All That Glitters showcases some of the most breath-taking examples of stage costume from Arts Centre Melbourne’s Performing Arts Collection. The exhibition celebrates the vision behind these costumes, the creativity and skill of those who created them, and the show-stopping performances that brought them to life.

Costume has played an important role in the development of the Performing Arts Collection since its inception in 1977. The spectacular stage wardrobes of Dame Nellie Melba, Dame Edna Everage and Kylie Minogue lie at the heart of this collection and epitomise the drama, exuberance and glamour of theatrical costume at its most dazzling. These stars of the stage, along with magnificent gowns recently donated by Opera Australia and a number of newly conserved pieces from the hit musicals of the 1950s and 1960s have been the inspiration for All That Glitters.

The exhibition draws together a rich selection of costumes by leading Australian designers including Hugh Colman, Roger Kirk, John Truscott, Kenneth Rowell and Kristian Fredrikson. Many of the costumes have been created to form the centre piece for some of the most lavish productions ever staged by companies such as The Australian Ballet, Sydney Dance Company, Melbourne Theatre Company, Bell Shakespeare and Opera Australia.

Cloak worn by Nellie Melba as Elsa in Lohengrin, c. 1891. Designed by Jean-Phillipe Worth
Gift of Pamela, Lady Vestey, 1977. Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Collection. Photograph by Jeremy Dillon.

Each costume has its own unique story and All That Glitters retells these stories with photographic images of the costumes in performance, capturing some of Australia’s most charismatic performers in action. Large scale productions from the world of opera create a major focus point for the exhibition with three extraordinary gowns created specifically for Dame Joan Sutherland.

Stunning costume jewellery will offer a historic glimpse at the captivating stage persona of performers such as Nellie Stewart, Queenie Paul and Esme Levante whose appearances lit up the Australian stage in the first half of the 20th Century.  Also featured are treasured pieces from a famously extravagant production of Aida first seen in Australia in the 1930s.

All That Glitters presents a dramatic display of treasured costumes from Arts Centre Melbourne’s Performing Arts Collection, which are unique to Australia’s performing arts heritage.

All That Glitters
Gallery I November 16 – February 23, 2014


Final days!

Costumes from ‘The Diary of a Madman’ and ‘Exit the King’ on display in the exhibition

Hurry! Time is running out for Melburnians to see The Extraordinary Shapes of Geoffrey Rush before it closes on 3 November.

We will be sad to say goodbye to this fascinating exhibition celebrating one of Australia’s best-known and most-respected actors. Featuring costumes, photographs, moving image and personal items, the exhibition highlights roles created by Geoffrey Rush in plays including Exit the King, The Diary of a Madman and The Importance of Being Earnest, and in films such as Shine, Quills, Pirates of the Caribbean and The King’s Speech.

The following two weeks will be a very busy time for the Performing Arts Collection staff as we bump out The Extraordinary Shapes of Geoffrey Rush and install a new exhibition hot on its heels…stay tuned for details, because it’s going to be a real stunner!

The Extraordinary Shapes of Geoffrey Rush
Arts Centre Melbourne, Gallery 1
Until 3 November 2013
Open daily, 9am till late

Nellie Stewart, George Musgrove and the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

Nellie Stewart as Nell Gwynne in ‘Sweet Nell of Old Drury’, c1902. Arts Centre Melbourne’s Performing Arts Collection.

This week marks the anniversary of the horrific 1906 SanFrancisco earthquake and fire that left much of the city in ruins and an estimated 300,000 people homeless. Caught in the mayhem that followed were Australian entrepreneur George Musgrove and Nellie Stewart, star of pantomime, light opera and drama, whose beauty and talent won the hearts of the Australian public at the turn of the twentieth century.

Nellie Stewart was a star of the Williamson, Garner and Musgrove’s Royal Comic Opera Company and throughout the 1880s performed in many of their productions including Patience, La MascotteHMS Pinafore, Iolanthe, Dorothy and Princess Ida. When Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado premiered in Australia in 1886, Nellie Stewart was the obvious choice to play the lead.

Buoyed by her singing success, Nellie Stewart attempted to make the transition to grand opera in 1888 taking on the role of Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust. Her success in the role was unfortunately marred by severely strained vocal chords, the result of unwisely singing the role for 24 consecutive nights. Vocal problems continued to plague her and the damage was compounded by further years of singing.

At age 43, Nellie Stewart decided to reinvent herself, this time as a dramatic star. As fate would have it her first non-musical role would also become the one for which she is best remembered. The play was Paul Kester’s Sweet Nell of Old Drury which premiered on 15 February 1902 at the Princess Theatre. The role was that of Nell Gwynne, a real-life rags-to-riches story of a poor ‘orange seller’ turned actress who became mistress of King Charles II.

Apron worn by Nellie Stewart as Nell Gwynn in ‘Sweet Nell of Old Drury’, c1902.1931. Arts Centre Melbourne’s Performing Arts Collection.

Nellie’s gamble paid off with sell-out performances and rave reviews following around the country. On the back of its success Nellie and her partner, entrepreneur George Musgrove took the ambitious step of sailing to San Francisco to undertake an American tour of Sweet Nell of Old Drury.  They arrived early in 1906 with a full dramatic company, stagehands, scenery, costumes and props.  The production and its star were an immediate success and following a successful season, Nellie and daughter Nancye travelled on to Colorado Springs while George remained in San Francisco organising further tour dates.

When the city was struck by an earthquake and ensuring fire on 18 April, Musgrove was caught in the midst of the devastation. A week later, ragged and battered, he made his way to his worried family. Scenery was destroyed in the disaster and the Sweet Nell tour had to be abandoned. It was a financial loss from which George Musgrove and Nellie Stewart never fully recovered. To enable the company to return to Australia, they sold their home in England and Nellie sold all her jewellery.